It is forty-two years since Fr. Noel O’Neill began the Emmaus project for those with special needs in South Korea. He provides a snapshot of some of those the project has helped. This article appears in the March/April 2024 edition of the Far East magazine.

A distance phone call from Seoul. It was Pak Hyun Sen wishing me a happy birthday. In the post there was a birthday card from Il Cheong. That same evening Mi Suk dropped by our apartment with her birthday present – a kilo of boiled chestnuts. All three were friends of mine. They had something else in common. All three are intellectually disabled and received training at the Emmaus Vocational Training Centre. Now all three are in employment.

Hyen Sen had returned to her home in Seoul, where we had got her a job in packaging at a nearby clothes factory. She earns 1,100,000 won a month ($820). When asked how she liked it, she said that her greatest joy was going to the local department store to choose a dress in a colour of her own liking. Up to this it was always somebody else who did the buying. Il Cheong has got a job as a watchman at a building site and with his monthly pay of 1,200,000 won ($892) he is helping to support his widowed mother. Mi Suk is married. Our social worker was instrumental in arranging a marriage for her with a physically disabled man who held down a job. They have one child, a daughter, who graduated as a nurse from one of the leading universities in Seoul.

A few weeks ago, at the Vocational Training Centre, during the afternoon 15-minute break, we (trainees and staff) were treated to a snack – tomatoes and bananas. Our benefactors were three ex-trainees who had got a job in an assembly line factory. On receiving their first ‘pay package’, they came back to the centre to express their gratitude.

Kim Yoon Cheong holding the key to her first home, watched by Columban missionary, Fr. Noel O’Neill
Kim Yoon Cheong holding the key to her first home, watched by Columban missionary, Fr. Noel O’Neill

However not all at Emmaus are likely to break down the barriers and make it to open employment. Paulo, a 17-year-old with down syndrome, died of congenital heart disease last year. His parents requested that the remains be brought to Emmaus and that the burial rites be held there. In the midst of their unbearable sorrow, Paulo’s parents and family found much comfort and consolation in the loving hugs and embraces shouldered on them by Paulo’s friends at the centre.

Han Seng and Kang Kou, both young men in their late twenties, who had been attending Emmaus for the past five years are now hospitalized for treatment at a psychiatric hospital. Both were coping well here at the centre but lack of understanding and acceptance in their homes by other members of their families, resulted in emotional stress that led to constant outbursts of violence. Our doors always remain open to welcome them back.

Pyong Chul (55) is the oldest man at the centre. His limited skills have not improved much over the years. He is able to recognise the number ‘25’ which is the clue for his daily bus ride to the centre. Once or twice in the year he may mistakenly take the number’45’ bus, ending up lost in unfamiliar surroundings. At the centre, because he has only the use of one hand, he is engaged in moving up and down the handle of the moulding machine for making artificial flowers. To onlookers his work may appear boring and monotonous but for Pyong Chul, it is an occupation which motivates him to get up each morning and run to catch the number ‘25’ bus. Having a job to do enhances the quality of his life.

Fr. Noel O’Neill blessing Kim Yoon Cheong’s new apartment
Fr. Noel O’Neill blessing Kim Yoon Cheong’s new apartment

Kim Yoon Cheong, a 26-year-old lady with an intellectual disability, came from an orphanage to live in one of the Emmaus group homes. While there she finished high school. Then as she passed the entrance exam for a two-year college course she remarked, “I want to climb another mountain”. Two years later I attended her graduation. When I posed with her for a graduation photo, I turned to her and asked, “what is the next mountain you would like to climb”. She answered, “independent living”. With the help of the social workers at Emmaus she began a trial period in experiencing independent living. To the delight of all she passed with flying colours. She is now living in her own little apartment. As she held up the key to the front door of her new home, she asked me to bless the apartment. Joined by many of her close friends and staff from the group home we had a house blessing ceremony followed by refreshments. As I was leaving, I turned to Young Cheong and once again I posed her the question, “Is there any other mountain you would like to climb” and with a playful giggle on her face turned to me and said, “I would like to have a boyfriend and eventually marry.”

It is forty-two years since we began our journey to Emmaus. Along the way as we listened and trusted in the ‘Stranger’ who walked beside us. We learned we were not answering the cry for pity or charity, but a cry for justice.

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